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Finding And Stopping Child Sex Trafficking


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, the number of FBI background checks jumped after September 11th, but a new report says the agency's records aren't always accurate and their mistake could cost you a job. We'll talk about that in just a few minutes.

First, though, we want to focus on another issue that's been in the news in recent years. We're talking about the trafficking of children for sex around the world and in the U.S. This might be a good time to mention that there are some disturbing details in this conversation that might not be for every listener. On Monday, the FBI announced that it had rescued more than 100 children who'd been forced into prostitution. They also arrested and charged more than 150 individuals believed to have been responsible for coercing or encouraging or even enslaving the victims.

It was a latest action in the decade-long operation from the Justice Department called Innocence Lost. We wanted to learn more about the FBI operation and even more about the extent of child trafficking in the U.S., so we called NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Also with us is Malika Saada-Saar. She's the executive director of Rights4Girls, and that's an advocacy group focused on gender-based violence. Welcome back to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.



MARTIN: Carrie, I think a lot of people were surprised to find out that there was a decades-long operation aimed at rescuing children who've been forced into prostitution. I think a lot of Americans are used to thinking about this as an international problem, not as something that happens in the United States. So tell us a little bit more about how big the government thinks this problem is.

JOHNSON: Absolutely. We're not just talking about slums in Asia here. We're talking about American cities and some activity that often goes on in the shadows but is quite prevalent. This Innocence Lost initiative began back in 2003 during the George W. Bush administration, and this FBI operation, called Operation Cross Country, is the seventh of its kind. FBI officials say they've rescued about 2,700 kids altogether as a result of these operations.

MARTIN: Was this the largest single raid of its kind? This is certainly the one that I can remember getting the most attention, or is it just that we're paying more attention to this now?

JOHNSON: This was a very big operation centered across 76 different U.S. cities. And it certainly got a lot more attention than it has in the past, in part, because the Obama administration at the White House and the Justice Department has been talking more about human trafficking for the last couple of years - made it more of a priority.

MARTIN: Malika, I'm going to turn to you here. That in announcing the operation, some of the officials talked about kids who have been vulnerable to this kind of exploitation. In the work that you've been doing, you know, over the years - when you've worked on trafficking quite a bit - what insights can you share about how this kind of thing starts?

SAADA-SAAR: If we really look at this issue of child trafficking in America, it's another lens through which to understand how broken our foster care system is. Many of these girls, especially, have been put into multiple placements, and many of these girls in those different placements have been abused. So one survivor leader whom we work with who was trafficked from the age of 10 to 17 - all through California, Nevada, Washington state - she talks about how, for her, foster care was the training ground to being trafficked. She understood that she was attached to a check. And what she points out is that at least the pimp told her that he loved her, and she never heard that in any of her foster care placements.

MARTIN: Carrie, can I turn to you on this? Does this track with what law enforcement told you?

JOHNSON: The FBI said on Monday that as many as 60 percent of the kids they've recovered in these operations, almost exclusively young women, have some familiarity with or involvement with either group homes or the foster care system. That traffickers can lure them with promises of money and affection, only to find themselves trapped in some kind of very abusive cycle, which often involve drugs and physical abuse, and sadly, can lead to really early death in some cases, too.

MARTIN: I'm also interested in who the pimps were.

JOHNSON: Most of them who were arrested came from Detroit, San Francisco, Atlanta - big metropolitan centers. And in past reporting, I've learned that truck stops, train stations, bus stations are common ways for these traffickers to move young women around. So it's not surprising to find that most of the activity is happening in those kind of big places.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about child sex trafficking. Our guests are NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson and advocate Malika Saada-Saar. She is with the advocacy group Rights4Girls. We're talking about the big FBI raid, where the FBI announced that it had rescued more than a hundred children who'd been forced into prostitution. This was a nationwide operation. Malika?

SAADA-SAAR: In the raid that played out, these were children between the ages of 13 and 17, and the statistics that we do have from the Department of Justice, in looking at the overall issue, we know that the average age of entry for these girls is between 12 to 14. So I think it's important to recognize that we're not talking about young women, that we are talking about children.

MARTIN: I'm wondering why it is that it took kind of a nationwide operation to rescue all these girls at once. It would seem that these young - these girls would be visible, that people would see children in a situation like this and somebody would intervene.

SAADA-SAAR: Well, that's where the Internet comes in and the Internet has changed the landscape. So you can go onto a mainstream website, like, and with full anonymity and discretion, purchase a child for sex. Because it's not on the street anymore, because it's through the click of a mouse with full discretion and anonymity on the part of the buyer, this is why we don't always see it. It is an issue that is, in fact, hidden in plain sight, and we have to be able to know that, often, when we see girls who are at bus stops, who are around runaway youth shelters, that so often, those are the girls who get preyed upon. And also, sometimes these girls are just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

MARTIN: Carrie, to that point, what were some of the circumstances - did the FBI talk about the circumstances in which they found these girls? Where were they?

JOHNSON: In some cases, these were undercover operations where the FBI agents went online and pretended to be men looking for dates, and when the young girls and the traffickers showed up, the traffickers were arrested. In other cases, they went to casinos, truck stops, hotels, other places on the street where they approached girls who looked quite young and then followed up with them about their circumstances.

MARTIN: Which begs the question, if a number of these girls were in precarious circumstances, what happens to them now?

JOHNSON: So the FBI has an office for victim services, and they said that they try to get these young women and girls help through social service referrals and into safe places to live. But sadly, there's no guarantee these girls won't return to this life. It's a very, very hard thing to recover from this kind of circumstance and it's going to require a lot of counseling and a lot of resources and a lot of attention, which they have not gotten in the past. The FBI says it's trying, but there's really no certainty.

MARTIN: Any further insights on who was engaging in this conduct? Like, how did these men get - or are they men? Are these other teenagers?

JOHNSON: In some cases, increasingly, the FBI is identifying criminal groups who are engaging in this activity. In the Northern Virginia area, there have been numerous recent criminal cases involving the MS-13 gang, sometimes, girls in very affluent communities, to try to lure them into this behavior and they get in way over their heads.

SAADA-SAAR: These gangs that used to sell drugs - and even along the same routes that they used to sell drugs, are now repurposing those routes, like I-95, Route 1, to sell the girls. And it makes sense because it's more profitable to sell the girl, right, because she's reusable as opposed to the drug, and there's very little risk to these individuals.

MARTIN: Was there any sanction extended to the people who create the market? Presumably, they're men who are trying to buy sex from these children.

JOHNSON: The FBI says their priority in this investigation was the victim. I asked them how many johns were arrested. They said they didn't keep track of that number.

MARTIN: Did law enforcement give you any indication of what tools they need to pursue this further, or what further steps they think that they want to take, or are there things that they want the public to be aware of?

JOHNSON: Nobody wanted to talk about this on the record, but as the FBI and other parts of the federal government face their own budget cuts, obviously, national security and terrorism aren't going to be cut. What could be on the chopping block, though, is the money to pay state and local law enforcement overtime for these kinds of operations. So as we talk about priorities moving forward in the federal government, the federal officials want us to know that this needs to be on the table.

MARTIN: I think there are some people who will hear this conversation, who will believe that there are some girls who are voluntarily engaging in this conduct. And that, however distasteful it may be to some people, it's their choice, and so why does this command this level of attention? And I'd like to ask you, as a person who has worked in this area, to address that.

SAADA-SAAR: There was one girl who is a survivor of being trafficked, and she said, how could you have even called me a prostitute? I wasn't even of the legal age to consent. And I think it's important to hear her words in this. And also, in all of the work that we have done with organizations across the country and the girls that we have met, so many of them, first, were already victims of sexual abuse. And I think it's important to raise that up.

It's important to see this issue not really about vice, right, not about prostitution. This issue is about violence against our girls that plays out in this country. This issue is not disconnected from the statistic that one in four girls, by the time she reaches 18, will be sexually abused. There also are lost girls. They're girls who have not been claimed by their families, who have not been loved and we have to be able to see them, and we have to be able to recognize that they need support and not judgment.

It's easy to simply discard them as child prostitutes, as bad girls who are making bad choices. But the harder truth is that these are the girls who are abused in our society. And what they are subject to is, unfortunately, part of a longer conversation, a greater conversation that we have to have about how many of our girls are hurt and undercut by violence.

MARTIN: Malika Saada-Saar is the executive director of Human Rights4Girls, that's advocacy group that addresses gender-based violence. Carrie Johnson is NPR's justice correspondent. They were both joining us from our studios in Washington, D.C. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

SAADA-SAAR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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